by Jonathan Stoneman

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The Salome 6, L-R: Georg, Fergus,
Klaus, Stefan J, Sarah, Stefan D
The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is one of the few classical music ensembles around which can expect to fill a concert hall every time it takes to the stage, and almost regardless of what is on the programme.  The orchestra is revered by the public and admired by the critics. What’s it like to be a member of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s horn section? To find out, Jonathan Stoneman visited the section during rehearsals for Strauss’s Salome in Salzburg.

It might be reasonable to expect that playing in an orchestra as consistently good as the Berlin Philharmonic would breed in its players either arrogance and complacency, or enough relentless pressure that only superhuman players would survive.  When seen in close up, on and off duty, the Berlin Philharmoniker horn section isn’t in either category. Why not? The answer is both simpler, and more complicated than you might expect.

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Fergus and Stefan J
warming up in the pit
The Berlin Phil horns are certainly masters of their art. They are strong, experienced players who had years of orchestral experience before they joined. Between them the six players in the pit at the Salzburg Easter Festival have more than 130 years of membership of the Berlin Phil. Stefan de Leval Jezierski is the longest serving after 32 years. Even the most recent joiner – Sarah Willis – arrived 10 seasons ago.

They all obviously enjoy each other’s company – travelling together even when they don’t have to, and clearly respect what each brings to the section’s sound and the close-knit team away from the stage; Stefan Dohr says everyone has their own role – comedian, peacemaker, leader and so on, which helps keep things friendly amid the professional demands.

All seem to know how to do their jobs in a relaxed way; “pressure comes from your own expectations” says the Principal, Stefan Dohr; in the section his total calm and relaxed personality spreads along the line.

The physical demands on the section are high. 2010/11 is a big Mahler season, with all the symphonies being performed (most of them more than once). There are, in principle, 8 players to share all the work, and to come together for the big pieces. At the moment there are just 6. New recruit, Andrej Zust, from Slovenia, will join in the autumn. And for the moment Stefan Dohr shares his principal’s seat with, as he puts it with a wry smile .. “an empty chair”.

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Sarah negotiates with Stefan D.
We're not sure about what
It is perhaps reassuring that Stefan D and Sarah Willis do at least touch their lips and say “ouch” as they pass me in the corridor after a run-through of Strauss’s Salome.

When asked what they do to cope with this demands, most of the section speak of taking care of the basics in the practice room; long notes, scales, intonation.  Georg Schreckenberger, one of the low horns, says his routine is much as it was when he was 12 – lots of slow scales, ensuring that everything is in place and in tune. Stefan J has much the same approach. Intonation is a word which comes up again and again in conversation – as something to concentrate on, but also as something which the orchestra does so well that it becomes easier to play.

Fergus McWilliam, low horn since 1985, says he takes a four week break from the horn every summer so that he’s forced to start again from scratch. He regards this as something akin to an annual medical check up; or a surveyor  stripping a building back to its foundations to make sure everything’s still securely in place.

The rest of the time Fergus does admit to not doing a huge amount of practice – he does “mental warm-ups” in the car on the way to work, and some mouthpiece work.

He still talks of “living the dream” – of making great music in a great orchestra and being paid for it.

A vital factor in the makeup of every section is the fact that the orchestra is very careful who it takes on. Everyone’s engagement begins with a 2 year trial which can end at any time, and especially when the players vote on whether to accept a trialist as a full member.

Sara Willis likes to practice by playing with Klaus Wallendorf – the Nicolai duets are a great favourite; so much so that Klaus has recorded one part on a CD so that Sarah can play the other when he’s not available.

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Author Jonathan S demonstrates
his alternative fingering.
Klaus is not convinced

By his own admission, Klaus Wallendorf hates practice. But he does do quite a lot, really. As well as playing duets with Sarah Willis, he says he hunts around online for anything which will help him maintain his stamina.

Even as one of the longest serving members of the section Klaus shows no sign of this becoming “just a job”. How? He says it’s partially through doing other things so that the orchestra is not the only thing in his life. He arranges, plays cabaret, plays in a brass ensemble, writes, and – as one website describes him is “a semi-official entertainer in the Berliner Philharmoniker”.

Keeping the horn in perspective is a recurring theme in chats with the Berliners. Stefan de leval Jezierski was a young horn player in Kassel, Germany, when a horn vacancy came up in Berlin. He didn’t really want the job, didn’t think he would get it, but liked the idea of a free trip to Berlin.

Now in his 33rd season, Stefan J is the longest serving member of the horn section. He says it’s never “just a job”. Even in routine pieces there is always the challenge of playing an entry perfectly in tune, with perfect expression – but also of just “going for it” like an athlete.

When asked about pressure, none of the Berliners says it’s a problem. Several say how the perfection of the ensemble helps everyone to play together and in tune. In the Berlin Philharmonic, says Georg Schreckenberger, extremes are possible – they can play louder and softer than other orchestras.

Stefan J says one of the keys to the Berlin sound is the fact that so many principals and rank and file players could be soloists in their own right, but have chosen to play in the Berlin Philharmonic – making the overall quality so much higher.

It’s a virtuous circle – the orchestra is a byword for great playing, so it’s a magnet for talent in all departments; the atmosphere is good, so people stay; the stability of personnel helps people to play together as if in a chamber ensemble; and the quality makes the experience a pleasure for players, conductors, soloists and audiences alike.

On top of that, the 2-year trial period, tough though it is for those who do not get invited to become full members, weeds out people for whom the Berlin Philharmonic is (arguably) not the right orchestra. This strengthens the bond between players and orchestra, and once in, probably makes it hard to leave – as one of the horn section puts it “there’s no passengers, no dead wood”.

(This is a shortened version of an article written for the Horn Player – the magazine of the British Horn Society)

The Horn Section

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The section, ready for the dress rehearsal

Stefan Dohr

Stefan began playing viola at the age of 7, moving to horn at 11 and concentrated on it from 14 onwards. He studied at the Folkwangschule in Essen with Wolfgang Wilhelmi, and in Cologne under Erich Penzel. From 1985-1992 he was principal horn at the Opera and Museum Orchestra, Frankfurt, then with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice,followed by a year in the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Berlin. Stefan also played for two years in the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra.

On 1 September 1993 Stefan joined the Berlin Philharmonic as successor to Gerd Seifert – who was to remain in the orchestra for three more years.

Soloist with the Ensemble Modern and other groups, Stefan has been a member of the Ensemble Wien-Berlin since 1999 and principal horn with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. He teaches at the Orchestra Academy, is  guest professor in the Hanns Eisler Music School and gives various masterclasses.

Sarah Willis

Daughter of an American father and an English mother, Sarah grew up in Tokyo, Boston and Moscow. She began horn lessons, aged 14, in England, although her teacher told her it was really something for boys. She studied for 3 years at the Guildhall School in London, and then in 1989 moved to Berlin and studied with Fergus McWilliam. In 1991 she became 2nd horn in the Berliner Staatskapelle. Sarah joined the Berlin Philharmonic in September 2001. She has been a member of the Philharmonic Society team since 2005. She works on Education Projects of the Berlin Philharmonic and recently began moderating its family concerts. Sarah Is a member of the Consortium Classicum, the Divertimento Berlin, and the Berlin Philharmonic Brass Ensemble. She has performed as a soloist in Europe and overseas.

Stefan de Leval Jezierski

When he took up the horn at the age of 15, Stefan had already played guitar, ukulele, and trombone. He studied at the North Carolina School of the Arts and, from 1972 was a pupil of Myron Bloom. In 1976 Stefan became principal horn at the Staatstheater in Kassel. Stefan became a member of the Berlin Philharmonic in September 1978. He was a founder member of the Scharoun Ensemble in 1983, and plays with the Philharmonic Wind Octet and has appeared as a soloist in Europe, America, and Japan. On top of that, he is an accomplished jazz musician. He has been teaching at the Orchestra Academy since 2000.

Fergus McWilliam

As a 6-year old Fergus was taken to an orchestral concert in Edinburgh and dreamed of becoming an orchestral  horn player. He studied at first in Canada, where he made his solo debut with the Toronto SO under Seji  Ozawa at the age of 15. He continued his studies in Amsterdam with Adriaan Woudenberg and in Stockholm under Wilhelm Lanzky-Otto. Until 1979 he played in Canadian orchestras and ensembles. He moved on to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra  and then the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich. In September 1985 Fergus joined the Berlin Philharmonic, having already played for a year as an extra. He has been on the personnel committee since 1989, and has been its chairman since 1996. In this capacity Fergus has been on the board of the Berlin Philharmonic since 2002 and was elected to the oversight body of the Berlin Philharmonic Ltd. He is active as soloist and chamber musician, in Germany and abroad, and is a founder member of the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet. He has taught at the Orchestra Academy since 2001 and teaches also in Paris, London and Tokyo.

Georg Schreckenberger

Georg had his first lesson on the horn at the age of 13 at the Mannheim Music School. In 1987 he went on to study in Frankfurt under Marie-Luise Neunecker. He became principal horn of the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne in 1988. Georg joined the Berlin Philharmonic in September 1993. He also played in the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra from 1992.

Klaus Wallendorf

Klaus began his horn studies aged 12 with Paul Witz in Dusseldorf. At the age of 16 he was already playing with the Aachen Orchestra. There followed engagements in Dusseldorf, at the Deutscher Oper in Berlin, and in Duisburg. He became principal horn with the Suisse Romande Orchestra and, in 1973, the Munich Staatsoper. Klaus joined the Berlin Philharmonic in September 1980 as a high horn player. His musical and poetic skills have seen him engaged as a speaker and presenter, moderator of concerts, and Christmas concerts. He has toured extensively as a member of the Consortium Classicum and the German Brass and with various colleagues in the German-speaking  musico-literary cabarets such as “Bar Any Reason” in Berlin.